Tag Archives: suicide

Gary Speed, the Leeds United Legend Who Ticked All the Boxes – by Rob Atkinson

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Gary Speed of Leeds United

Gary Speed, the Leeds United and Wales star who seemed to everyone who’d witnessed his talent on and off the pitch to have the football world at his feet, left us seven years ago today. Because of the manner of his leaving, and the universal esteem in which he was held, this is a difficult piece to write, even all these years later.

People have described hearing the shocking news of Gary’s death as a “JFK moment”; you’d always remember where you were and what you were doing when the awful reality fell on your unbelieving ears. As a Leeds United fan, I can remember feeling a cold splash of shock at the back of my neck, a sensation I’ve only had on a mercifully few occasions in my life. Even though Gary had left Elland Road for his boyhood love Everton 15 years before, it was a shattering blow, as it would have been for all of those who supported him in the colours of Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, as well as the fervent ranks of Wales fans. It was so sudden, so unexpected and inexplicable, that a player and manager who seemed to have it all should have died at only 42 years old, and apparently by his own hand.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Gary Speed was loved and admired by just about everyone, fans of his clubs and country, and rival fans alike. Within the game he was revered by his colleagues, team mates, opponents and media operatives, for his likeability and professionalism; he was known as a man without the kind of faults and flaws you so frequently find in young men who have succeeded in their professions at a young age, and who have gone on to become rich and famous. Gary had all that, but he also had a disarming and genial personality that endeared him to those he met in the course of his career. Many were the tears shed, in private and in public too, over the days and weeks following his untimely demise. Nobody who saw it will forget the sight of Shay Given weeping openly after the minutes silence that preceded the Swansea v Aston Villa match only hours after Gary’s death had been announced. Respected reporter Bryn Law, a close friend of Speed, broke down emotionally during a TV interview in which he described his shock and sense of loss. To say that the whole game reeled with the impact of such tragic and unexpected news would not be to overstate the case. Gary’s memory was honoured when Leeds United played Millwall and his fellow midfielders from the 1991–92 title winning side Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gordon Strachan laid wreaths in the centre circle before kick off.

Bewilderment featured high on the list of reactions among those who knew him well, or who had even just known him as a famous footballer. The question of “Why?” has never been completely answered, the inquest stopping short of reaching a verdict of suicide, whilst acknowledging that Gary’s death had been caused by “self suspension”. Several years after Speed’s death, one of the coaches who had been involved with him as a boy footballer, Barry Bennell, was convicted as a serial child sex offender. Speed had been interviewed by police during earlier investigations into Bennell’s behaviour, and had said that he was never harmed by him; the inquest into Speed’s death found no links to Bennell. In February 2018, however, after Bennell’s conviction, an anonymous victim of the coach told Al Jazeera that he had witnessed Speed being abused. It seems unlikely that there will ever be a definitive explanation for the death of a man who had only the previous day conducted himself normally during a BBC Football Focus interview. All we are really left with, even seven years later, is shock, bafflement and a profound sense of loss.

Pg-11s-gary-speed-gettyMy memories of Gary Speed date from around the time of his Leeds United debut in 1989. He swiftly established himself as far more than just another promising midfielder, with his range of passing, awareness, powerful shot and prodigious ability in the air marked him out as a very special player. He served Leeds United well in a period of success second only to the Don Revie era, and he carried the respect and affection of the Leeds fans with him when he departed for Everton in 1996.

If I had to pick out one particular golden memory of Gary Speed, it would probably be the one so many other United fans mention when asked; the final goal of Leeds United’s 4-0 demolition of promotion rivals Sheffield United at Elland Road towards the climax of both clubs’ successful campaigns. It was a crunch game, with Leeds on the front foot from the start and, with the Whites having established a three goal cushion, Speed was released down the left by an astute Chris Kamara pass. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, outstripping the Blades defence and bearing down on Simon Tracey‘s goal at the Kop end of the ground. “Go on, Gary lad, get one yourself,” were the commentator’s memorable words as Speed unleashed a fine left foot shot just inside the far post to wrap up a comprehensive victory. It’s the stuff of which legends are made, and Gary Speed fits the definition of the word “legend” in every conceivable sense.

Seven years on, all of his fans remember him with affection tinged by the regret of a life well spent but over far too soon. Leeds play Reading tonight, and there will almost certainly be tributes paid to one of the club’s greatest servants – one of those rare players you felt could even have challenged for a place in Don Revie’s Super Leeds outfit.

RIP, Gary Andrew Speed, MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) – still loved, still missed. 

Speed LUFC

Gary Speed’s complete Leeds United record

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“Suicidal” Former Leeds Star Clarke Carlisle May Offer Hope and Help to Others – by Rob Atkinson

Former Leeds star Clarke Carlisle - back from the brink

Former Leeds star Carlisle – back from the brink

Carlisle of TV's  Countdown

Carlisle of TV’s Countdown

The revelation – or confirmation, rather – that former footballer, PFA Chairman, media pundit and TV Countdown star Clarke Carlisle was actually attempting suicide when he was hit by a lorry on the A64 just before Christmas, comes as a salutary reminder of some uncomfortable factors in any life. It’s confirmation, were any needed, of how potentially close we all are to disaster, of the flimsy veil that separates even apparently blessed people, with seemingly blessed lives, from profound despair, abandonment of hope, loss of any self-esteem and ultimate oblivion.

Carlisle LUFC

Carlisle of Leeds

Carlisle, a one-season wearer of Leeds United’s famous white shirt, is the latest in too long a line of footballing personalities who have sought escape from an existence they could no longer bear. You can conjure the names out of years and lives gone by: Gary Speed, also formerly of Leeds; Justin Fashanu, of Norwich and Nottingham Forest; Hughie Gallacher of Newcastle United and Chelsea; Dave Clement of QPR and Bolton. The difference with Clarke Carlisle is that he survived the attempt to take his own life, and has now chosen to go public with the story of the illness that so nearly finished him off.

An assured and articulate speaker, Carlisle may now have a role to play in explaining the mindset of the star – or the person in the street – moved to such drastic action. He might even, perhaps, be instrumental in helping prevent those, both inside the game and out, who are even now contemplating a drastically final end to their woes. Others, of course, have been to the brink of eternity – and have pulled back. But Carlisle is a prominent figure, an erudite man with a mastery of language that can get his message across. He is someone who epitomises how even a life stuffed with achievement and advantage can suddenly go pear-shaped. Surely he, better than most, could tell how the dream can turn into a nightmare, and thus illuminate the whole question of what prompts this descent into despair. There is an opportunity here, maybe, to learn and even to identify potential victims and actually help.

One of the main threads in the national anguish following the tragic death of Gary Speed was this baffled and hopeless question of “Why? Why??” In other cases, it was slightly easier to deduce a cause – but there is no real insight into the workings of a mind suddenly closed to every solution except one, not when it’s been annihilated forever by that awful, final step. Justin Fashanu was a probable victim of homophobic prejudice in society in general (and football in particular). Dave Clement suffered from depression, as did Hughie Gallacher, who never adjusted to the curtain falling on his career and then the untimely death of his wife. Clement took his life with weedkiller, Gallacher stepped in front of a train. There is no one common factor to link all of these sad ends; just details emerging later of the pressures and stresses the people concerned could no longer handle. But the victims of suicide themselves, of course, are sadly beyond being able to help us help others in danger of a like fate.

What is beyond doubt, after all this time, is that there will be many people out there for whom some form of self-immolation is a likely outcome – unless they can somehow be identified and helped. Various danger signs can be tentatively identified: the dicey period when a short career in the public eye comes to an end; the presence of some transgression of the law for a well-known person such as a footballer, with the possibility then of public disgrace. But these do not form an exhaustive list, and the candidates for suicide are not limited to those lately in the public gaze. The suicide rate in wider society has spiked over the past few years, especially among the poor and sick; those marginalised by what is a bleaker and more chilly, unsympathetic landscape both politically and economically.

It is Carlisle’s very celebrity, however, combined with his gift for communication, that might well now make him the ideal candidate to spearhead a crusade against the blight of self-inflicted death. If he can possibly recover from the profoundly low point which saw him hurl himself into the path of a lorry that December night, surely Clarke would have a lot to contribute in this cause – and therefore a new purpose and path for himself. As a prominent person who has sought to terminate his own existence, and yet has survived, he’s almost uniquely placed, certainly in the world of football, to cast some light on these long, dark shadows; to reach out to those who may feel there is no help for them, and who see their options dwindling down to that one, awfully final choice.

Carlisle of the PFA

Carlisle of the PFA

Such an initiative, starting within the game of professional football and probably under the auspices of the Professional Footballers’ Association, could be built on the survival of Carlisle – awareness having previously been raised, in the fairly recent past, by the tragic example of Gary Speed. Carlisle, as a former leading light in the PFA, could just be an almost divine gift where such a cause is concerned. Great oaks from little acorns grow, and any effect a PFA-led campaign might have on those within the game at risk of such an awful circumstance, could then have a multiplied impact in society at large. In the nature of these things, the message is far more effective if it originates from a high-profile and highly popular environment, football being an obvious example. In times when football’s – and football stars’ – stock is low due to the perceived greed and aloofness in the game, this could be a chance to redeem the whole thing; to give something very real and solid to the rest of us. It’s not fanciful to suggest that, properly harnessed and channelled, a crisis like that suffered by Clarke Carlisle could ultimately save many hundreds, thousands, of lives.

Clarke Carlisle has walked through his own private hell, as Speed, Fashanu, Clement, Gallacher and others must have done before him. For Carlisle, it seems to have been the winding-down of his professional life, with the loss of his playing career and then his media employment, against a background of a drink problem that had afflicted him before and has lately resulted in a charge of drink-driving. But he survived his planned exit from life, and will now presumably face up to his issues. He has already spoken frankly about the fact that he attempted to take his life; that’s a step on the way to speaking a lot more, working towards dealing with his own demons and helping others be identified before it’s too late, so that they, too, can deal with theirs. Carlisle has the opportunity now to do something very positive that would arise directly out of his lowest ebb – and to this end, surely the game of football, the PFA and the wider authorities in this country should do everything they can to encourage and help him to help those who might otherwise end up as more statistics in the tragic roll-call of suicide.

As a Leeds fan, I sympathise with an ex-player’s hard times; I’m grateful for his narrow escape and I’m hopeful for his full recovery. But, just as a human being, I hope that some good can come out of this, so that perhaps it’s less likely in the future that there will be another Gary Speed lost to us, or another Hughie Gallacher, major stars and international footballers who yet found themselves unable to carry on. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step; let someone step in now and help Clarke Carlisle be instrumental in starting that journey towards a time when people gripped by despair can look up with some hope that there is much more available to them than just that final, self-inflicted end.

It may well be too early yet for Clarke Carlisle to be thinking along these lines; he will almost certainly have more immediate priorities, pressing problems to deal with. But the willingness to speak out publicly augurs well – and it must be true that the one thing Clarke will need right now and for the future is some hope for that future; something to cling on to, something to get up in the morning for. Some good to do. He’s well-placed and uniquely equipped to do it. Good luck to him.

Kenyan Man U Fan’s Suicide Harks Back to Famous Shankly Quote – by Rob Atkinson

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Shanks – didn’t really mean it

There are many famous sayings attributed to the late, great Bill Shankly that are still quoted to this day.  Some of them, he even actually said.  The one in the image above seems likely to have been genuine, actually uttered by the great man.  But wherever you hear it quoted, you’ll usually hear a hastily-added qualification too: “He didn’t actually mean it, of course.  It was part of his football-daft image…”  Quite so.  Shankly was football-daft – many are the anecdotes to illustrate this, and again, some of them are based on fact. But Shanks wasn’t daft in the wider sense and, certainly, if he did utter the words above, they’ll have been uttered with tongue firmly in cheek.

All of which sheds awfully little light on the baffling and tragic death in Kenya of local Man U fan John Jimmy Macharia, 23 or 28 (depending on which report you read), who plunged to his death from a multi-storey apartment block in Nairobi after David Moyes’ men suffered a second home defeat in four days, further denting the champions’ chance of retaining the Premier League title. “Macharia jumped from the seventh floor of an apartment at Pipeline Estate after realising that his team Manchester United lost 1-0 to Newcastle at Old Trafford and committed suicide,” Nairobi’s County Police Commander Benson Kibui told Reuters.

Commander Kibui went on to bemoan the role of the English game in this and at least one other suspected suicide in Kenya over the past few years. “All witness accounts suggest he committed suicide because the team lost but officers are still talking to those who were with him as part of the investigations into the incident”, he said. “It is not the first time we are losing a young man because of the football in England, which is far away from us. The football fans should enjoy the matches… but they need to know that is just a game and they should not commit suicide, since life is very precious.”  Undeniably true.

The fact that even one fan, anywhere in the world, could actually be moved to take his own life on the back of a pair of home defeats for a team thousands of miles away, seems mind-boggling.  It seems also to give an uncomfortable resonance to Shanks’ famous quote – but a soundbite nearly fifty years old can have little to do with what is an extreme phenomenon, born of a different type of football support to that tribal devotion typical of Shankly’s day.

As I wrote yesterday, this newish, different type of support has grown apace in the past decade or so.  Some call it “glory-hunting”, some merely refer to “global fanbases”.  But at its extreme margins, where tragedies of this sort are liable to occur – however infrequently – the motivations behind choosing to support a “megaclub” stand some examination.  Why, exactly do far-flung people choose to do this?  I believe that the answer to that depends on the type of club involved – but by far and away the most common reason is the wish to be identified with some perceived example of size, power and success.  This is “gloryhunting” in the raw, where a person of questionable self-esteem, lacking any other readily-apparent avenues for self-aggrandisement, will latch on to an institution regularly “bigged-up”  by the media, held up and put on a pedestal by such media as an example of success, something to be worshiped and revered, an institution which will reflect honour and glory onto its adherents, wherever they might come from.

There is seen to be some social cachet, therefore, in being recognised as a supporter of, say, Man U.  The opportunity is seemingly there for the otherwise pallid and ill-defined individual to bask in some reflected glory. For certain people of a perhaps less robust personality, this represents a relief from the humdrum routine of unregarded anonymity – it provides an escape route from their own feelings of inadequacy.  In extreme cases though, the pedestal that such a needy person builds for him or herself is more like a house of cards that can too easily come tumbling down, bringing with it the hapless fan who has pinned so much carefully-nurtured self-esteem on a seemingly invincible team that turns out, after all, to be fallible. The shock of this will be too much for some to bear; as they witness the downfall of their heroes, icons they had thought utterly reliable, what are they left with?  For the tragic few – seized upon as merchandising fodder by a voracious world game…and then let down with a bump – the answer would seem to be: nothing.

Better then, by far, to use football as a channel, not for some hopeless yearning for a boost in self-esteem, but rather for the kind of grisly defiance and bloody-mindedness that characterises – for instance – Leeds United fans. If there’s one thing you can be tolerably certain of, it is that, by and large, Leeds fans need to be made of stern stuff.  Not for them the lure of glory and triumph, not for them the warm glow of media hype and approval, or widespread cultural adoration.  The Leeds fan – especially the Leeds fan from far afield – has different motivations of an earthier and more non-conformist character.  Why else would so many travel literally thousands of miles per season, pay Premier League prices for what has been decidedly indifferent fare this past decade – and all of this to a background of contempt, disapproval, even hate?  It’s a conundrum – but some answers may well lie in some of the illuminating responses I received to yesterday’s article.

Whatever the reasons – and on the evidence of those replies, I would venture to suggest that most of them have to do with a desire to kick-out against the Establishment, the accepted way of things – the requirements to be a Leeds fan include a thick skin, strong shoulders, a philosophical personality and – above all – an unshakeable inner conviction that, against all visible evidence, they are right and the rest of the world is wrong.  Thus equipped, the Leeds United fan is able to roll with the punches, go with the flow and still feel able to hold their head up high and proclaim “We are Leeds and we are proud.  Marching On Together.”  This is not the stuff of which potential suicides are made – or at least not for such mundane reasons as a football result.

It’s the kind of inner serenity that fans of many clubs might well wish they could trade for a trophy or two.  It’s a state of mind, and not one that can simply be assumed.  It’s often said that fans don’t pick clubs – rather clubs tend to select fans of the mettle required to be worthy of supporting them. The media have a role to play in all of this, and it’s by no means a blameless one.  In their decades-long campaign of advancing the interests of one club – Man U – above all others, they have inflicted a certain amount of collateral damage, whilst at the same time strengthening the sinews of those already sinewy individuals who dare to swim against the tide and aspire to be Leeds United fans, or followers of other similarly proud but unregarded, unhyped clubs.

The damage done by the media to the weaker vessels who have opted to cling to the coat-tails of the mighty Man U has not been done intentionally. But suggestibility and the capacity to be brain-washed are functions of the strength, or lack thereof, of the human personality, the human ego.  It is the weaker ones who will be vacuumed up, wholesale by such a leviathan as Man U, with their publicity operatives in the press and media acting as recruitment agents.  Only the strong of character can resist such a siren call, only the willfully-defiant will survive the propaganda and tempting blandishments to be seen and read everywhere.  From these ranks – the ranks of the strong and the pugnacious – will emerge the Leeds United fans from every corner of the globe.  These are not people who will launch themselves off a high building after a couple of home defeats.  And fortunately so, as otherwise there might by now be sadly few of us left.

The tragic young man in Kenya who died last weekend can be seen as an extreme example of a victim of the myth that has grown up around the likes of Man U – and they are not alone.  A few years back, another Kenyan fan, this time of Arsenal, also took his life after a poor result, in the Champions League – ironically against Man U.  Never can the essential wrongness of that famously ironic Shankly quote have been more vividly illustrated than in these two wasteful and needless deaths, precipitated – almost certainly – by the meaningless outcome of mere games of football on foreign fields that neither victim would ever have visited.  This is when you start to question the degree to which football is hyped, when at bottom it remains mere sport, paling into insignificance besides the great issues of today or any other age.  It’s a pastime, a preoccupation – something to talk about or argue over in a bar or on a tea-break.  It beguiles many an idle hour, but it’s not – of itself – all that important.

Of course, there is always a place for pride in football, and even for people to use it as a vent for emotions that can’t find an outlet elsewhere.  But we must retain a sense of proportion, which is what that bemused police chief in Kenya was saying.  Passion and commitment must be tempered by realism and a sense of proportion.  The media should be playing a leading part in this, instead of grossly exaggerating over long periods the significance of games and competitions, or the standing and supposed invincibility of certain favoured clubs.  To perpetuate these hollow myths is to act irresponsibly, as there will always be fragile personalities that cannot define for themselves a sense of proportion, and to whom, ultimately, something as silly as a game of football might actually become as important as life or death itself – all at the behest of irresponsible journalists selling a commercially-motivated fairy-tale.  And when the ultimate tragedy happens, we’re all of us the poorer for it, even though it’s likely to affect fans directly only at that over-hyped and ridiculously puffed-up elite end of the world game.

As Bill Shankly would doubtless have been the first to admit, the whole institution of football everywhere on the planet is not worth even a fraction of one life.  It’s time that those responsible, in media and megaclub marketing departments, for pushing the hype, the hard-sell and the lies, got real, got back to what the game used to be all about and got back to reporting what happens instead of trying to lead the game by the nose in the direction of success and glory for the few and Devil take the hindmost.

Because when all is said and done – it’s only a game.

Memory Match No. 11: Nottm Forest 0, Leeds Utd 4 29.11.2011

Jonny Howson celebrates at the City Ground

Jonny Howson celebrates at the City Ground

Whatever some people may think of Leeds United fans – and who cares, after all, because we all know what fine, upstanding chaps we are – they certainly know the ideal form when it comes to paying full and emotional tribute to a hero lost long before his time.

In the universe of all things Leeds, the news of Gary Speed’s tragic and untimely death came as a JFK moment: you just know that, years later, you’ll recall exactly where you were when you heard the awful, mind-numbing announcement that such a recent Legend in White was dead, and apparently by his own hand.

The images are certainly clear and sharp over a year down the line: the sea of floral tributes around the foot of Billy Bremner’s statue; the crowds that gathered in silent, respectful tribute; the sight of that fine professional Bryn Law, struggling to contain his tears as he reported from Elland Road on the death of his friend, the female anchor in the studio clearly moved to tears herself as she witnessed his distress.  It was a tragic time of shock and grief.

In retrospect, it is clear that the next opponents for Leeds United in their undistinguished Championship campaign were on an absolute hiding to nothing.  Team and fans alike, emerging from that initial shock into a reluctant acceptance, were determined to pay the finest possible tribute to a fallen hero.  Speedo was, after all, a true legend from the most recent era of real legends, a veteran of the Leeds United renaissance of the late eighties and early nineties.  We had previously mourned our dead of that earlier generation of greats; The Don was gone and so was King Billy, neither having lived to grow old.  But the death of Speed was that much more of a shock; that much more distressing for his relative youth, for his contemporary appeal to a younger breed of Leeds support who had not witnessed Revie’s greats, and for the awful circumstances which had compelled a young man with seemingly everything going for him to take his own life.

The thousands of Leeds fans who descended upon the City Ground that November night may well have been pondering the state of mind that leads to such an awfully final act.  They were certainly determined to pay characteristically raucous tribute: this would be no solemn wake, but a vibrant celebration of all that Gary Speed meant to the Barmy Army of Leeds United’s travelling support. The match itself was necessarily a footnote to the real agenda of the evening.  Forest were pitiful in their ineptitude – a team that would later travel to Elland Road and score seven had nothing to offer in the face of United’s determination to mark the first match after Gary Speed’s death with a thumping victory.  The home team seemed out of the running from the start; it was as if they knew, in the face of the emotional momentum behind the Leeds team and fans, that they had no chance at all – and they meekly accepted their fate.

Before kick-off, there had been the now traditional minute’s applause – such a preferable option to the old-style minute’s silence with its potential to be disrupted by a few shandy-slewed idiots.  In the 11th minute, a tribute to Speed’s occupation of the number 11 white shirt, the 4000-strong Leeds United army behind one goal erupted into a chant of his name, a chant that was intended to be maintained for that poignant number of 11 minutes.  The tribute was interrupted for the best of reasons as Robert Snodgrass fired United into a 20th minute lead, a left foot shot into the bottom corner very much in the style of the man himself.  On the stroke of half time, Jonny Howson doubled the lead with an even better strike, the ball sitting up for him to belt a dipping right-footed effort past a helpless Lee Camp.  2-0 at the interval, and the home side had done little to suggest that it had any intention of detracting from the tributes of Leeds fans and players alike.

In the second half the pattern continued unchanged.  Forest remained awful, the home section of support seemed to expect nothing better and Leeds strolled to two further goals towards a comprehensive victory.  First just four minutes into the second half Luciano Becchio met a left wing cross at the near post to glance a fine header across Camp into the far corner.  Then in the 66th minute, the messiest of fourth goals.  The Forest defence conspired in its own destruction, parting like the Red Sea to lay on a clear chance for Howson to score his second, only for the over-worked and under-protected Camp to first save the effort, and then scramble after the loose ball.  His heroics were to no avail however as Adam Clayton picked up on the rebound to find a yard of space and fire into the empty net.

One thing that stands out in the writing of this article is the fact that, in the relatively short time since Forest were humbled, all four of the United scorers that night have left the club.  It’s a rather depressing thought, but they were certainly all Leeds all the way that night, and delighted to be able to help the Whites fans celebrate the life of one of their heroes with their own loud and proud tributes, and with a thumping victory to boot.  Forest’s only real contribution to the evening came late on when the frustrated and already-booked Andy Reid earned himself a second yellow with an agricultural challenge on Aidy White.  “Can we play you every week?” roared the United fans, a sentiment that would not survive the return game at Elland Road – and they would be glad too that it’s not every week they have cause to mark the passing of a United great at such a tragically young age, and in such awful circumstances.

 Gary Andrew Speed MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) Leeds United 1988 – 1996, 2nd Division Championship Winner, First Division Championship Winner, Charity Shield Winner. 

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RIP

 Next:  Memory Match No. 12:  Real Madrid 3, Leeds United 2.  The late, great Don Revie always longed for his legendary Leeds United side to be pitched against the biggest legends of them all, and to draw CF Real Madrid in European competition.  Sadly, it never happened in The Don’s lifetime, but when a slightly less vintage era of Leeds finally appeared in the amazing Estadio Santiago Bernebeu, they were not disgraced – indeed, I rather think that Sir Don would have been proud.

True Cost of Thatcher’s 1983 Election Win to be Revealed??

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Later today, figures on the number of suicides since the early eighties among British armed forces personnel who served in the Falklands Conflict are due to be revealed.  The headline figure on casualties of the fighting is clear cut: 649 on the Argentine side, 255 British and 3 Falkland Islanders for a total of 907 human souls lost over a rocky outcrop or two thousands of miles from the supposed “mother country” UK.  Arguments may well wax and wane over the correctness of Britain’s historical claims to the Falklands, or Malvinas as they are known in Argentina.  A rhetorical question often asked goes along the lines of: how would the British national psyche take it if Jersey or Guernsey, for instance, were to be claimed as sovereign territory by, say, Peru?  It’s a hypothesis that perhaps doesn’t get us far, other than maybe to provide an insight into the sensitivity of feeling over the Falklands/Malvinas issue for the citizens of Argentina.

Thatcher: In Command

Thatcher: In Command

Whatever the true cost in lives of the Falklands conflict, what seems indisputable is that the military operation and its success in terms of objective achieved certainly boosted a Tory administration that had seemed in terminal decline at the time of the Argentine invasion.  It has been alleged that the British Government had prior intelligence of a pending military operation  planned by General Leopoldo Galtieri‘s ruling junta, the implication being that Thatcher’s cabinet saw the political potential of a decision to war-war rather than jaw-jaw, and so elected not to nip the situation in the bud.  The extent of the mess that this government found itself in is difficult to over-state; had they successfully deflected any threat of invasion, or had they launched a diplomatic initiative in the wake of the Argentine occupation, it is doubtful whether the impact on the subsequent general election would have been as great.  Pragmatically, “war” (even an undeclared war) was a better option than “jaw” – or so the conspiracy theory goes.

On the Argentinean side too, there appeared to be significant political advantage to be gained from a successful re-acquisition of Las Malvinas.  The Argentine economy was in an even bigger hole than that of the UK, and the effect of the invasion was a major boost to patriotic sentiment and the consequent short-term popularity – or at least acceptance – of the previously despised junta.  The historical precedent of a convenient war, to arouse jingoistic feelings and a surge in national pride, is there for all to see.  Both sides will have been well aware of the stakes, and a certain amount of brinkmanship may well have been at play.  This was probably more the case on the Argentine side, where it seems likely their military operation was calculated on the basis that the British would have neither the will not the logistical capability to mount a response in kind over such a long distance with all the problems of cost, supply lines and communications.  In the UK, the swiftness with which that response actually materialised was a tell-tale sign that Thatcher’s government were not only willing, but eager to launch the most emphatic counter-strike possible, and the fervour with which the public hailed the departing task force was a massive encouragement to the hastily-assembled War Cabinet.

The Sun's Perspective

The Sun’s Perspective

The attitude on the part of the British forces seems throughout to have been one of belligerent determination and ruthlessness.  Despite the problems of distance (mitigated to a large extent by the availability of the strategically-located Ascension Island as a stopping-off point), the task force had the inestimable advantage of its professional make-up; the troops were regulars, hardened pros, and many feared for the fate of the Argentinean rag-bag of conscripts should they ever meet in direct combat.  In the event, the Argentine forces fought bravely and effectively, leading to unexpectedly bloody and costly land engagements such as the Battle of Goose Green.  The conflict as a whole was more a series of sharp engagements on land, at sea and in the air, than any drawn-out and attritional process.  British naval losses were significant – the attack on HMS Sheffield following hard on the heels of the notorious action to sink the ARA General Belgrano.  Both sides were being hard-pressed to hold their political nerve in the face of dramatic losses such as these.

In the end, of course, there could only be one winner and the likelihood all along was that the British forces, superior in training and equipment even though stretched logistically over such a vast distance, would succeed in re-taking the islands.  So it proved, but at a tragic cost on both sides in terms of lives lost.  The die had been cast right from the start in that the losing side would almost inevitably see political change in the wake of the conflict and many now view this, from the perspective of over thirty years, as a calculated risk on the part of both governments concerned.  The determination to press ahead with military action and the relative marginalisation of the United Nations in the matter speaks of a strong political resolve on either side, and the results are clear to see; Galtieri was removed from power in January 1983, whereas Thatcher received an immense boost in the polls, and this “Falklands Factor” saw her sweep to victory with a landslide later that same year.  The monetarist Tory government was not, after all, destined to be a one-term experiment as had seemed so likely prior to 1982.  The course was well and truly set and the old-style of government, with full employment at the root of all its thinking, was consigned to history.  Thatcher may have been the economic disciple of Keith Joseph, but she showed the survival instincts of a polecat to go with her determination to make Monetarism work and banish old-style Socialism.  From that perspective, the loss of a few hundred lives in the South Atlantic may well have been considered expedient against the probability of electoral defeat and a return to what she will have thought of as the economics of disaster.

Thatcher was the big winner in the Falklands conflict.  It has been posited since that a great saving, in terms of money and human lives, could have been effected by ceding the territory to Argentina and providing each islander with a bounty of £1 million and a villa in the South of France.  This is, of course, a simplistic hypothesis, but the numbers certainly add up.  The British government of the day could not contemplate what they would have seen as a craven climb-down, with a devastating effect on how the UK was seen in the eyes of the world.  To this day, pro-Thatcher apologists refer to the way she “made Britain great again” or similarly extravagant claims.

Simon Weston OBE

Simon Weston OBE

It is notable in this context that one of the most fulsome tributes paid to the late PM, after her death in April this year, was from Welsh Guards veteran Simon Weston OBE who famously suffered extensive burn injuries during the Falklands campaign in the attack on RMS Sir Galahad. Weston is now seen as an inspirational figure for his recovery from his injuries and his charity work, and his endorsement of Thatcher’s premiership was seen as a powerful vindication of her policies, particularly where the Falklands issue was concerned.

What appears absolutely certain is that Thatcher gained herself an extra seven years she would not otherwise have had, to advance her own agenda, and change the face of Britain forever.  Whether you regard the number of lives lost as a price worth paying for that will depend, naturally, on your own political convictions.  But it may be worth noting, later today, just how high that price was when those official Falklands-related suicide figures are finally released.  At a time when our government today is starting to pile up the body count as people take a drastically simple way out of the world being foisted on them, we may reflect on this depressing tendency of governments to view individuals as mere political pawns or economic units, rather than people imbued with a spark of life and the right to an existence outside of macro political considerations.  Life should be seen as far too precious to end up as a statistic of the battle to stay in power.

Bedroom Tax Claims Its First Confirmed Victim

Stephanie Bottrill: No Hope

Stephanie Bottrill: No Hope

Stephanie Bottrill was a 53 year-old grandmother who had lived in her terraced house in Solihull for 18 years, bringing up her children as a struggling single parent, nurturing the cherished back garden which was her pride and joy. Here she’d buried the pet cats she had loved; here was the area of calm she called her “special place”, where she could feel at peace. Then the Bedroom Tax bill arrived, and Stephanie knew she would have to pay £20 extra a week or find somewhere smaller. So, she sadly packed her bags ready to move, but nowhere suitable could be found. Resigned to her lack of options, Stephanie Bottrill sat down and wrote notes to all her family, dropped her house keys through a neighbour’s letterbox and walked down to Junction 4 of the A6 motorway where she stepped into the path of a northbound lorry and was killed instantly. She had become the first confirmed victim of Iain Duncan-Smith’s ill-advised and hated Bedroom Tax policy.

The notes that Stephanie had left behind were notes of love for her family, beseeching them not to blame themselves for her decision to end her life. She just wasn’t strong enough to carry on, she explained, and nobody was to blame but the Government. Her family have reacted with despair and disbelief that anybody could be driven to such lengths. But really, this tragic event was to be expected. A government that formulates a policy that leaves its most vulnerable citizens with nowhere to turn, no options to lead their lives in peace and security, must expect an outcome such as this. Realistically, as appalling and dreadfully sad as Stephanie Bottrill’s fate may be, she will almost certainly not be the last person to give up on life, to snuff out their own life. In the face of this Government’s callous and uncaring determination to visit all our economic ills on the heads of the poorest and least able to pay, it is horrifyingly likely that the death toll will rise, unless those in power can be persuaded to wake up, and smell the coffee.

It is difficult to imagine a more ill-conceived and irresponsible policy than this notorious and discredited Bedroom Tax. It is a policy that places those least able to cope directly into a Catch-22 situation. Unable to find the extra money levied each week – £20 is a frighteningly large amount out of a meagre weekly income. Unable to move either, because of the lack of suitable smaller properties. What is one to do? Discretionary payments can be applied for, but the budgets for these are laughably small; in practice only those with the very severest of disabilities in the most deprived of circumstances will have any chance of qualifying, and then only for a limited time. Maybe a move to the private sector rental market, but there is no security there, rental contracts are for months, not years. You are simply existing from month to month, or if you’re lucky, from year to year; you’re not living in your own home. Do the politicians who draft these measures, and who live in mansions and never worry where the next meal is coming from, have any real idea of how this might feel? The heat or eat dilemma? The pain of having to move out of a place where your children grew up, somewhere you’ve invested years of your life to make a house a home? Do they have the remotest clue?

It’s equally difficult to speculate as to what the reaction will be of Cabinet Ministers hearing news like this. Will they feel the pangs of conscience? Will they allow doubt to enter their educated and sophisticated heads as to whether these policies are really right? There is absolutely no sign of any such response. The issues confronting the poor, the dilemma of those faced with paying up or shipping out when neither is a feasible option – and there are thousands of people in precisely that situation – are a closed book to people who are in power and yet completely out of touch with the nitty-gritty of everyday life for the most vulnerable in society. That much we can say with confidence; the evidence for it is irrefutable. But an even more worrying question is: do they even care? Does anyone in this Government actually give a damn?

Stephanie Bottrill seems to have concluded, in the face of all the information available to her, that – in undeniable fact – nobody in Government does care. Nobody was prepared to lift a finger to help her in her no-win, zero-options situation. Most of us – fortunately for our peace of mind – cannot imagine the despair, the desperate loneliness and lack of hope that goes hand-in-hand with a conclusion like that. We can only accept that Stephanie’s state of mind, as she made her solitary walk to a death she felt was her only way out, was of a resolve born of her absolute conviction that the Government had abandoned her, careless of her fate, indifferent as to whether she lived or died. She made the awful decision to act on that conviction, alone and with her own indomitable brand of courage. Stephanie chose to abandon the world she felt had given up on her.

Can any of us say with any confidence that she was wrong?